I started this post about a week ago, because as always I either over- or underthink everything in my life. Actually, I had no intention of writing a review of 2018 because it was such a brutal and painful year. I sat down to write my goals for 2019 attempting to move forward. And yet there was this nagging feeling that these superficial goals were just an attempt to cover up the frayed, raw loose ends of the past year that were obviously still needing to be addressed. So I looked back on the mess of 2018. And within it I found some pretty big lessons.
2018 was a crappy year in large part because of plain old bad luck. It was a terrible year for me health-wise– I spent much of the year battling crippling fatigue, elevated pain, and a serious bout of depression. My mom was diagnosed with and successfully treated for cancer at the beginning of the year. And my dad had a spinal cord stroke at the end of June that would completely upend our lives. But, looking back, much of my anguish during the year was inadvertently of my own doing.
Going through life with a chronic illness, particularly one that lacks a definitive diagnosis and treatment, has come with incredible struggle– physical, emotional, and mental. But with it has also come incredible insight and lessons. This isn’t new. It’s been a few years now that I’ve looked at my illness as being a blessing. There are, of course, days where it seems as nothing more than a curse. On the days when I struggle to hold a conversation or can do little more than feed myself, it’s difficult to see that there’s even anything that this illness has given me. But it has given me so much.
Living with illness or going through any event that alters our presumption of life can be very intense. It can also be incredibly clarifying. I’m very fortunate to have been able to define my true priorities at such a young age. When you have remarkably limited resources in terms of energy, you really begin to look at what’s important to you. I now know what I want in life and why. I know the value of family. I definitely know the value of health. And I know that above all else, I want a family of my own. It’s why I ultimately quit school and relocated back home.
None of this was new for 2018. I knew exactly what I wanted. But I was really struggling. Physically, emotionally, and mentally I was struggling in a way that I had never struggled before. I was more motivated and determined that year than ever to recover and yet every effort seemed to set me back further.
I may have known exactly what I wanted, to return to health so I could move on, but I later realized I was doing it in the wrong way. I thought that in order to get what I wanted in life, I first needed to return to who I was before I got sick– that I was incapable of fulfilling my dreams as the person I currently am. I was attempting to erase a struggle, rather than move forward with the growth that came from that struggle.
I was attempting to erase a struggle, rather than move forward with the growth that came from that struggle.
Looking back, it seems crazy that I would ever want to move backwards– and yet here I was literally visualizing myself as the 17 year old girl before the illness set in. I was attempting to move backward so I could move forward. All year I had been trying to backtrack, to move upstream, and unrealistically expecting my health to suddenly return. This of course only led to disappointment after disappointment. Much of this had to do with my ego– I wasn’t ready to let go of the fact that I may never be as I once was, or be who I was hoping to be, and that I may forever have flaws and shortcomings. I had been working so hard to satisfy my ego, rather than move forward with what I had, as I was.
There’s no going back after a tragedy, or a death, or a loss, or a change. Why would we diminish growth? We grow into something else that’s more than what we were before the tragedy happened. We can never become less than what we’ve ever been– we can only grow. And resistance, trying to go backwards, is only going to lead to stagnation, to frustration, and to heartache. That’s exactly what happened to me in 2018.
The trouble with 2018, it seems, came down to one little word: expectation.
When we expect something we tend to have a “set in stone” idea of what something will look like. When this doesn’t work out, we’re left with a negative emotional response– disappointment, resentment, etc.. The word is closely associated with worth, and when we fall short of that expectation, our worth suddenly comes into question. Another problem with expectations is that, to a certain extent, they involve entitlement. We can begin to feel entitled to the result and the work needed to get there doesn’t always get fulfilled. Most critically, they allow little room for the unexpected. This can easily lead to resentment of other people in our lives or life in general when circumstances come up that prevent us from fulfilling those expectations. Even if the expectation is ultimately fulfilled, that negative emotional response may still be triggered even if we didn’t meet the expectation of the journey!
Aspirations, on the other hand, are more open-ended. It’s the desire to go towards a goal. They mentally prepare us for the work ahead because they’re goals, not expectations. They’re generally less time sensitive, far more flexible, and more closely associated with innovation. When we aspire to something, we have far more room to pivot or adjust as circumstances change or obstacles arise, and we may even regroup and decide whether there’s a different yet equally, or even more, fulfilling destination than the one we initially set out for.
The key to making aspirations productive, rather than just lofty dreams, is pairing them with concrete, incremental goals. The aspiration is what you ultimately wish to achieve– the goals are that big task broken down into smaller tasks. As life throws things at you, you adjust your goals or even your aspirations.
We can successfully go through life for a while utilizing expectations. They can be incredibly motivating— they’re a clear goal to work towards and the emotional risk of not meeting them is very motivational. But when things outside the person’s control begin to interfere, it can lead to incredible anguish, disappointment, and frustration. This was the case with me. A year of seemingly unending events kept interfering— and it felt like I was doing nothing but fail.
I went into 2018 expecting myself to recover, or to at least perform to the same standards as when I was healthy. But because I was so ill, I was expecting those around me to help. Without clearly communicating what I wanted or needed (Hell, I wasn’t even clear on what I was doing at the time), they weren’t in a position to really help. Add in their own fires, and they were so busy tending their own flames that they couldn’t help with mine. Rather than see this for what it was, I saw myself as trying and failing (again and again), and not getting the support that I needed. This resulted in expectations in myself and others consistently not being met, strained relationships, a whole lot of disappointment, and as a whole, unhappiness.
It wasn’t until I looked back on it all objectively that I could see why I was spiralling downward. Hindsight really is 20-20.
The mental and emotional (and seemingly also physical) weight that has been lifted after coming to this change in perspective has been quite astonishing. I still sometimes catch myself falling back into old thought patterns, but I make an effort to reroute my thoughts whenever possible. Until now I had never realized the emotional toll my own expectation of “getting better” was putting on me– until I took it away. Knowing that I can simply aspire to have a family and a life doing what makes me happy, however that ends up looking, whenever that happens, without first “fixing” myself is tremendously freeing.
Some people assign a word for the year ahead. That’s something I’ve never done, but 2018 wrote itself “Expectation”. This year I’m going to consciously counteroffer “Aspiration” for 2019.
How did you fare in 2018? Also glad the year’s behind us? Leave me a comment or send me a message!
I answered these 25 questions to gain better insight on the year behind and the year ahead. If you’re looking to gain some better clarity in your life, this is a great free resource!